"Expertise, Eugenics, and the Legacies of Slavery: Studying Race Crossing in the early 20th Century," Rana Hogarth

Event date: 
December 6, 2022 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Seminar Series: 
History of Science Colloquium
Audience: 
By Invitation Only

Expertise, Eugenics, and the Legacies of Slavery: Studying Race Crossing in the early 20th Century

Rana Hogarth
Associate Professor
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Dickinson Hall 211 & Zoom

For questions, to RSVP, or get the zoom link, please contact Lee Horinko at lhorinko@princeton.edu.

This talk examines how ideas about race from the era of slavery informed white eugenicists’ approaches to studying race crossing in the early twentieth century. I focus on the differing methods employed by American eugenicist, Charles B. Davenport, and British eugenicist, Karl Pearson, to study the heredity of skin color in “Black and white racial hybrids.” The tension that arose between these scientists’ opposing views on the heredity of skin color occasionally played out in the pages of academic journals, and it serves as my point of entry for examining how each scientist staked their claim as an expert based on data derived from the close inspection of mixed-race people’s bodies. Moreover, because both Davenport and Pearson relied on data from Britain’s Caribbean colonies, much of the genealogies that appeared in their studies represented an extraction of intimate personal family histories from colonized groups of people not so far removed from slavery’s traumas. Finally, this talk will show that no matter how different Davenport and Pearson were in their approach to assessing the heredity of mixed-race skin color, they shared the underlying assumption that Blackness could be reduced to a trait and made legible through careful study. 


Rana Hogarth's research focuses on the medical and scientific constructions of race during the era of slavery and beyond. Her first book, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017. In it, she examines how white physicians “medicalized” blackness— a term she uses to describe the process by which white physicians defined blackness as a medically significant marker of difference in slave societies of the American Atlantic. Her second project examines the genealogy and deployment of the terms used describe mixed race offspring of black and white people (“mulatto,” “quadroon,” etc.) in American medical and lay discourse.  It traces how these terms were used in colonial Caribbean contexts and in mainland North America during the era of slavery, and illuminates how American eugenicists adopted these terms to correlate mental and physical capabilities of mixed race people to their racial ancestral make up. In doing so, they refashioned these terms from crude labels to precision tools with valid scientific meanings. In the early twentieth century, American eugenicists looked southward to the Caribbean to conduct “race crossing” studies, viewing that region as an ideal experimental site to undertake the study of a topic considered taboo in the United States during that time. The results of their studies gave credence to the notion that race was a visual and quantifiable biological feature and confirmed white anxieties about the perils of racial mixing. Finally, this project centers Caribbean ex-slave colonies as experimental spaces that allowed eugenicists to extract data from mixed race people for the benefit of American scientists and the lay public.